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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 9.16 55 By the time the Spanish arrived in the New World in the 15th century, the horses were all gone — good thing the Spanish brought their own. ese visiting horses moved in like they belonged here. By the 1700s, the West was home to flourishing herds of wild horses descended from the Spanish equines. Horses and North America were made for each other. So why did they vanish? e earliest horses, which evolved some 52 million years ago, didn't look much like American Pharoah. ey looked more like Bambi. ey weighed about 50 pounds and stood one to two feet at the shoulder. ey had toes, not hooves. ey were forest creatures. Over millions of years, horses evolved with their changing environment and its spread- ing grasslands. e animals grew larger, developed hooves, and learned to speak like Mr. Ed. About 3.5 million years ago, they evolved as the modern genus, Equus. And some of them left their teeth behind at Big Bone Lick. At 1,000 pounds, Equus complicatus was about as big as a oroughbred. What caused the horse disappearance? I'll make this quick: climate change. at's one of the leading theories explaining the mass-extinction event. As Earth's climate gradually cooled at the end of the Pleistocene — which stretched from 2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago — not only did horses disappear from North America, so did all the other creatures we're talking about. In fact, nearly every animal bigger than 100 pounds went extinct in North America. Each global cooling led to a drop in sea level as water froze into glaciers. Falling sea levels revealed land stretching from Alaska far into Siberia. is was no mere isthmus. It was as deep as Alaska and 3,000 miles across. is new land is believed to be the path humans took to North America, and the path horses (and camels) took out of North America. Some of those animals that wandered into Asia made their way south, eventually reaching Africa, where zebras evolved. e animals that didn't make the crossing were subject to a cooling, drying North American climate that changed plant life for grazers and browsers, put- ting them in peril. With their deaths, predators like saber-toothed cats and dire wolves vanished as well. At the same time, there's a chance that newly arriving humans contributed to extinction by hunting some of these species. Scientists are still debating exactly how it all went down. Wrap your mind around this: a beaver that's six- to eight-feet long and 200 pounds, with six-inch-long front teeth. And I don't find it comforting that it probably had a small- er brain than modern beavers. In fact, this just kind of adds to the bad-Saturday-after- noon-scary-movie aspect of it. Giant beaver remains have been found in Eastern Kentucky, but the species name? Ohioensis. Here's what I propose: Ohio should put up a big sign some- where near Cincinnati announcing itself as the home of the Giant Beaver. en, perhaps, we'll hear the end of the Big Bone Lick jokes. H PREHISTORIC HORSES F F H GIANT BEAVER